New York, New York
The course of any meal unfolds in a highly personal and circumstantial way. Evaluating any restaurant experience devoid of personal context (e.g. company, mood, and personal preferences) is an impossible task.
Though I like think that I can be scrupulously objective, I know that emotion trumps reason, personal preferences cloud objectivity, and prejudices stain judgment.
Unlike last year, not a single restaurant experience in 2009 rose head and shoulders above the rest. No restaurant experience this year was flawless from head to toe.
Thankfully, a meal stands upon more than its technical merits alone.
I had a scant handful of exceptional meals, a few, very good meals, and, surprisingly, an alarming number of mediocre and dispiriting ones.
On this last day of 2009, I offer the 10 best restaurant experiences I had this year along with some other restaurant “bests.”
Click on each restaurant to read my review, if one exists, and/or to see the photos from that meal.
Best in Show
Last year, my best meals seemed to leap out at me and line themselves in order. Not so this year. Putting this year’s best meals in any order proved impossible beyond the top four, which were the real headliners of my year of eating. The rest of the top ten this year is a collection of very good meals – each offering polished prizes, each with dents.
1. ubuntu (Napa, California)
It might seem cliché of me to say so, but Jeremy Fox has made me understand and appreciate vegetables in ways I never imagined possible. To say that ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant is both correct and a gross underestimation. It really is so much more. It’s conscientious.
2. Manresa (Los Gatos, California)
David Kinch has authored a new chapter in our culinary evolution. It was great to rediscover the origin of the species.
3. Aburiya Raku (Las Vegas, Nevada)
I knew it would be good. I didn’t know it’d be this good. While it’s true that the menu centers around the grill, as implied by the restaurant’s name, it’s the playful, culturally adapted creatures – like a chawan mushi-like custard made of foie gras – that make this restaurant an exciting place to eat.
4. Corton (New York, New York)
With Thomas Keller and a number of well-known chefs (two of whom have restaurants on this very list) in the house, it’s not surprising that Paul Liebrandt and his staff where on their A game. Splendidly imaginative food. Wonderful service. And a convivial atmosphere. It was a meal to remember.
5. Le Bernardin (New York, New York)
Constant, steady, and ever-faithful, le Bernardin delivered a beautiful and delicious meal for my thirty-first birthday.
6. Man Wah (Hong Kong)
With a stunning view of Hong Kong, marvelously precise Chinese classical dishes like Peking Duck and kung po tofu, and excellent service, Man Wah demonstrated that Chinese cuisine can be both honest and refined.
7. Restaurant Alex (Las Vegas, Nevada)
If technical proficiency isn’t Alex’s strong suit, then its definitely the restaurant’s ability to smother you with familial generosity. With rich sauces and beautifully cooked meats and fish, each dish was a deliciously decadent walk along the French-Italian border.
8. Lung King Heen (Hong Kong)
When the food here hits the sweet spot, it sails. Everything from the shark’s fin soup to the meaty abalone glazed with a rich oyster supreme sauce managed to be soul-satisfying and finessed all in one bite. Lung King Heen proves that there is such a thing as Chinese haute cuisine.
9. Tim’s Kitchen (Macau)
What the restaurant lacks in looks it more than makes up for in flavor. Humble, Cantonese home-style cooking gets a confident and delicious revision in this gem of a hotel restaurant in Macau.
10. The Modern (New York, New York)
If Aquavit taught me that I am part Scandinavian, then Executive Chef Gabriel Kreuther of The Modern has help confirm that I am also part Alsatian. Kreuther colors his gorgeously presented plates with Alsatian flavors and sensibilities, like a rabbit terrine coated in a velveteen layer of herb emulsion. The fact that we ate there the day that that he was to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef New York made the occasional all that more memorable. Now, if they can just find a way to block out the din from the bar…
* * * * * * * *
Good service, not to mention outstanding service, is a rare commodity in restaurants. Last year, I named three restaurants that gave me exceptional service. The problem with this year is that the restaurants that gave me the best service were all ones where I was either known to the house, or I was with people who were known to the house. Therefore, I recuse Manresa (Los Gatos, California), Corton (New York, New York), and Jean Georges (New York, New York). Only two restaurants remain:
1. The Modern (New York, New York)
This comes as no surprise. Danny Meyer, the king of hospitality, has groomed yet another fine corps of servers.
2. Man Wah (Hong Kong)
This was one of those rare instances when service clicked and a healthy rapport was developed within the course of a meal. Benson Yang, the wine director took command of our table and graciously held our hands through the meal. He was not only knowledgeable and helpful with the wine service, but expertly served us Peking duck, along with another server who carved the bird skillfully. Courses were paced and presented properly. Overall, they made our experience joyful.
Although I seek adventure and diversity on the plate, I’ll admit to having a more prosaic approach to restaurant décor. Here are the three that added one more layer of beauty to my dining experience.
1. Joël Robuchon at The Mansion (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Black and white checkered marble tiles. Royal purple velvet lined banquettes with matching, fluffy pillows. Crystal chandeliers. Thick, plush carpeting. High ceilings. And thick swaths of drapery. It sounds gaudy, but it’s actually quite simply done. Truly a page from a mansion, this restaurant’s interior was classy, beautiful, and surprisingly intimate.
2. Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, New York)
Maybe it’s the romance of eating in an old stone barn or its location on a picturesque farm estate set amongst the wooded hills. Maybe it’s the high-trussed, vaulted ceiling that makes you look up and out from your table. Or maybe it’s the magnificent wooden table in the center of the dining room holding a plumage of fresh flowers. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a beautiful restaurant.
3. Eleven Madison Park (New York, New York)
To me, Eleven Madison Park is the classiest-looking restaurant in the city. Everything from the high, bank lobby ceiling to the spray of flowers jettisoning up from the banquette rings with celebration. And every corner, from the cozy two-seater banquette nooks to the hauntingly quieting painting of Madison Park hanging near the lounge whispers elegance.
1. Corton (New York, New York)
Grafenreben de Zellenberg, Domaine Bott-Geyl, Alsace 2005 paired with “Uni.”
2. Manresa (Los Gatos, California)
Domaine Turlato & Chapoutier, Shiraz-Viognier, Victoria (2007) paired with “Bernard Antony Comté de Garde Exceptionnel 2004.”
3. Le Bernardin (New York, New York)
Nuits Saint-Georges, Vieilles Vignes, Daniel Rion 2003 paired with “Escolar.”
5. ubuntu (Napa, California)
Koshiki Junzukuri paired with the “2x-shucked peas and GOLDEN SHOOTS in a consommé of the shells.”
8. The American Restaurant (Kansas City, Missouri)
2005 Mas de la Dame Cuevee Gormande paired with “Roasted Guinea Hen.” (This dish was prepared by Chef Ted Habiger of Room 39 for a special fundraising dinner hosted at The American Restaurant. The wine pairing was overseen by The American Restaurant’s wine director Jamie Jamison).
Best Crumb and Crust
Not surprisingly, this category was swept by European restaurants last year. Although I had some very good bread this year, the bread at two restaurants in particular were exceptionally memorable:
1. Manresa (Los Gatos, California)
Was it the soul-enriching, workaday heft of the crumb ringed by a thick, caramelized crust that shattered with a joyous shout? Or was it Pim Techamuanvivit’s stellar butter that orbited David Kinch’s meal with celestial gusto? I still can’t decide. Regardless, I ate a lot of bread (and butter) at Manresa.
2. MESA Grill (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Dropping in for a light brunch, my friend and I found the bread basket so wonderful that we had very little interest in the rather forgettable salads we ordered. Actually, bread is a rather inaccurate and inadequate description here. It’s more of a smattering of cornmeal baked goods. There was a yellow and blue cornmeal muffin threaded with onions; a cornmeal coffee cake with a streusel topping, and a cornmeal muffin top with raisins. My favorite one in the basket was the only non-cornmeal-based item: a bacon and jalepeno biscuit.
Whereas diners once suffered waxy stuff made from quarter-pound sticks, today, restaurants in the U.S. are serving some excellent butter. But excellent butter requires careful sourcing from a thoughtful producer and a skilled craftsman. Here are a two restaurants that are doing just that.
1. Manresa (Los Gatos, California)
See above Best Crumb and Crust #1. Pim is a true artisan at her craft. Her butter is superb.
2. The American Restaurant (Kansas City, Missouri)
As richly hued as it is endowed with butterfat, the local farmhouse butter served here is hearty, cheesy, Old World goodness. They also serve goat butter, which is pretty fantastic.
Best Pre Party
First impressions are always the most important. These three restaurants sent out incredibly hard acts to follow – even before the first act began.
1. Manresa (Los Gatos, California)
It’s hard to tell when the pre-meal snacks end and when the formal meal on Chef David Kinch’s tasting menu begins – that’s just how good the pre-party is at Manresa. Playful, delicious, and creative, Kinch takes you on the journey of a lifetime even before his multi-course odyssey begins.
2. Corton (New York, New York)
First there are the canapés: caviar on fluffy, buttery bagels; warm gougeres; and airy pea sponges. Then there are the amuse bouches: foie gras Chantilly, whipped light as can be, and strip of silky fluke beneath a translucent band of yuzu gelée. Warm, cold, salty, sweet, rich, light, tart – a magnificent wind-up for the equally diverse dishes to follow.
3. Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, New York)
Blue Hill at Stone Barns leads you through the garden before your meal begins. The parade of one- and two-bite snacks varies with the seasons and includes everything from fresh vegetables just plucked from the vine or pulled from the earth to little sweet-savory micro burgers filled with freshly-made tomato jam.
Best Post Party
Alas, gone are the days of trolleys overflowing with well-made petits fours, cakes, bon bons, and iced treats. Gone are the crunchy cannelés Bordelais with creamy interiors and dark chocolate ropes of orangettes with a pliant candied orange core. Gone is Europe. Nearly every trolley that was wheeled up to me this year seemed more focused on quantity than quality. And the vast majority of mini-sweets set before me seemed trite and obligatory; literally, afterthoughts. But, a few restaurants kept putting their best foot forward even after the big plates had been cleared. Here are the three best from this year:
1. Eleven Madison Park (New York, New York)
A fleet of multi-flavored mini macarons? How could it not make you squeal like a kid?
2. coi (San Francisco, California)
Just one little sip and I knew the meal was over: Vanilla Milkshake. Smooth, frothy, speckled with vanilla beans, and richly imbued with extra virgin olive oil, this was the last word on milkshakes. Demonstrating that less can be more, it was magnificent.
3. Jean Georges (New York, New York)
Just when you think you can’t take another bite, Executive Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini’s final coup arrives. He proves that predictability can be overcome by flawlessness with fluffy marshmallows snipped from a jar table-side, trays of uniquely flavored chocolate bon bons, textbook dark chocolate orangettes, and tiny button macarons that are light, airy, and delicious.